Henry David Thoreau, “Selected Essays, Part Three” (1852-1862)

We come to the final essays of Thoreau’s short life, which focus on his abolitionism, his resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law, and his defense of John Brown.

We start with two essays written for Thoreau’s friend Harrison G. O. Blake in 1852, “Love” and “Chastity and Sensuality.”  My impression in these two short essays is that Thoreau sentimentalizes and idealizes love over what he would call more base sensuality.  With marriage, “all lusts or base pleasures must give place to loftier delights.  They who meets as superior beings cannot perform the deeds of inferior ones.”  (329)  Later, “Love and lust are far asunder.  The one is good and the other bad.” (330)  I suppose his belief in a perfect marriage or an ideal love (not corrupted by base lust) is akin to his quest for perfect goodness or bravery.  Perhaps Thoreau is defending his bachelorhood and (likely) virginity.  I found these essays tedious and judgmental.  Love, for him, exists in a transcendent realm and we who dwell in the the more vulgar acts of lust and unfortunately deluded.  He even slips in a near eugenicist argument. “The only excuse for reproduction is improvement.  Nature abhors repetition.  Beasts merely propagate their kind, but the offspring of noble men & women will be superior to themselves, as their aspirations are.  By their fruits ye shall know them.” (332)  He does not define superiority as genetic, of course, yet he comes off as a quite unconventional mid-19th century American intellectual in his idealization of romantic love and his condemnation of sexual pleasure (particularly among the working poor who so many reformers targeted for improvement).

“Slavery in Massachusetts” (1854) makes the case that the state of Massachusetts was complicit in the spread of slavery through its acceptance and defense of the Fugitive Slave Law, which required that run-away slaves be returned to their “owners.”  More troubling was that it seemed to put a burden of proof on kidnapped free people to prove that they are not slaves.  In some cases, at least, free men and women were enslaved through the workings of the courts.  Thoreau points out that state agents, judges, proved to be unwilling to stand on the side of justice in interest of defending their position.  It makes Massachusetts a potential state of slaves.  Thoreau is desperately searching for a polity that can deserve his loyalty.  Certainly the Constitution and brazen majority rule will not do.  Neither will the worship of “Mammon” embraced by the institutions (religious, secular, and educational) in the state.  “Show me a free State, and a court of justice, and I will fight for them, if need be.” (344)  As for Massachusetts, Thoreau states that their is enough injustice to warrant revolutionary change.  “My thoughts are murder to the State, and involuntarily go plotting against her.” (346)  What this essay gives us is a practical application of “Civil Disobedience”

“Life Without Principle” explores the question of work.  How is it possible to be free, happy, fulfilled, or proud if one works for money or survival.  He fears the revolution has been incomplete.  “Even if we grant that the American had freed himself from a political tyrant, he is still a slave of an economical and moral tyrant.  . . . Do we call this the land of the free?  What is it to be free from King George and continue to be slaves of King Prejudice?  What is it to be born free and not to live free?  What is the value of any political freedom, but as a means to moral freedom?” (363)  We start with the problem that most of the ways that exist of making a living are unsatisfying for most.  Working for others invariably results in a form of theft.  “If the laborers gets no more than his wages which his employer pays him, he is cheated, he cheats himself.” (350)  Thoreau, with his radical individualism, likely finds the man cheating himself worse than the employers theft.  In this situation, good work can only come from a type of bribing.   His solution may be utopian, but I think we need this Utopian approach again.  “The aim of the laborer should be, not to get his living, to get ‘a good job,’ but to perform well a certain work; and, even in a pecuniary sense, it would be economy for a town to pay its laborers so well that they would not feel that they were working for low ends, as for a livelihood merely, but for scientific, or even moral ends.  Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for the love of it.” (351)  Ah, but even this is a half-revolution.  Countless employment websites make the same types of claims today.  Finding work one loves to do, without a fundamental restructuring of the economic system of exploitation simply makes that exploitation more palatable to the workers.  I have no doubt that many workers have found work that they love.  Even work that reflects tasks they would engage in even if they were not paid.  Thoreau assumes that these tasks will still be “work.”  We can read “Life Without Principle” as a good diagnosis of the problem, but an incomplete treatment – we need a society that can encourage people to pursue their talents and interests and make it possible to pursue those talents and interests without exploitation.

Thoreau wrote three essays on John Brown in 1859 and 1860: “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” “Martyrdom of John Brown,” and “The Last Days of John Brown.”  It seems that Thoreau may have found his great hero in John Brown, a man capable of transcending social convention in pursuit of moral perfection.  He aptly dispenses with the nonsense about John Brown’s insanity or religious zealotry.  This nonsense still finds its way into writings on John Brown, unfortunately.  While, Thoreau says, the attack on Harper’s Ferry and the hope of starting a slave revolt may have been foolish, it cannot be called insane.  First, the government and slave aristocracy would not have feared him had he been insane.  Second, had it been successful it would not have been deemed the work of a madman.  Third, how could an insane man have attracted such a significant following for his action of “civil disobedience”?  Finally, and most importantly, he was merely pursuing the logical consequences of his perfectly rational moral positions.  More important than the life of John Brown (irredeemably lost anyway) to Thoreau was how he would be remembered.  And Thoreau was certain that Brown would be remembered as being on the right side of history.  On this point, Thoreau was prophetic.  “It seemed to me that John Brown was the only one who had not died.  I never hear of a man named Brown now,–and I hear of them pretty often,–I never head of any particularly brave and earnest man, bu tmy first thought of of John Brown, and what relation he may be to him.  I meet him at every turn.  He is more alive than ever he was.  He has earned immortality.  He is not confined to North Elba nor to Kansas.  He is no longer working in secret.  He works in public, and in the clearest light that shines on the land.” (428)

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2 responses to “Henry David Thoreau, “Selected Essays, Part Three” (1852-1862)

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